December 5, 2010


I’ll admit it.  I’m a perfectionist.  I hate mistakes.  If you want to drive me crazy¹, just show me a sign with an unnecessary apostrophe, use the phrase “between you and I,” or pronounce “poinsettia” as if it had only three syllables. 
¹ (As my wife would say, “it’s not a drive, it’s a putt.”)

Sometimes, there’s a sense of irony attached to the mistake, such as when the error appears in a pronouncement touting the quality of the local schools.   Or when people use an erroneous understanding of inerrancy to perpetuate erroneous ideas. 

It usually comes up when well-meaning Christians cite the doctrine of “biblical inerrancy” to explain why they refuse to accept a scientific understanding of the universe.  If they’re going to accept the Bible as the authoritative word of God, and they see the Bible teaching that the world was made in six literal 24-hour days, then any evidence pointing to a world older than a few thousand years must be rejected.  It becomes a clear choice:  the Bible or science.  But it’s a false choice based on a mistaken understanding of inerrancy.

Let me give an example.  I’m going to state that based on today’s date, and my geographic location, that the sun rose at  7:35am today.  I’ve used every resource available to me to ensure that my information is correct, from consulting astronomical tables, confirming my geographical coordinates, and personally observing the sunrise while checking the time against a clock synchronized with the atomic clock in Colorado.  With that information to back me up, I confidently declaim that “the sun rose at 7:35am today” is an inerrant statement.

Now someone who knows my commitment to accuracy, and takes what I have said at face value, comes to the following conclusion:  “In saying ‘the sun rose’, Phil has taken a firm stand against the concept of a rotating earth.  We must accept the most straightforward interpretation of his words, which proclaim that the sun travels around the earth, and not the other way around.”  (By the way, this is precisely one of the arguments that the church, including such respected theologians as Luther and Calvin, used to reject the heliocentric astronomy of Copernicus and Galileo. )

The problem is that the assumption of inerrancy was coupled with a complete misunderstanding of my intent.  Although my statement inerrantly communicated my intended message about the time of sunrise, by incorrectly assuming my intent was also to teach an astronomy lesson, a completely erroneous conclusion was drawn.

Much bad science has come from misunderstanding the way the Bible's original authors and audience communicated.  Analogies, metaphors, and the context of how the world was understood at the time, were often used to communicate deep truths (just look at how often Jesus used parables).  Analytically dissecting each statement in search of 21st century science is strictly a modern and Western way of thinking, and likely to lead to conclusions that were never intended.

So for skeptics who want to charge the Bible with errors because there actually are seeds smaller than mustard seeds (Mark 4:31), don't confuse the inerrancy of the truth being taught with the human context in which that truth is wrapped.

And for believers who are afraid of compromising their position on inerrancy, it's worth pointing out that the Pharisees of Jesus' time were among the most uncompromising inerrantists of all time.  Yet Jesus had harsh words for them about how badly they had misinterpreted the intent of scriptures.  

Being committed to inerrancy is not a matter of stubbornly rejecting any new information that may contradict your previous position.  A true commitment to inerrancy requires the ongoing, diligent examination of your own positions, using all the tools God gave you – including the one between your ears.  And when science discovers new truths about our universe that correct a previous misinterpretation of scripture, we can thank the scientists for their contribution toward our pursuit of an increasingly inerrant understanding of God, scripture, and our world.

One last comment:  If your own sense of irony has been  about to burst from the moment you saw the title of this article, let me put your mind at rest.  Yes, the misspelling of the title was intentional.  And because I intended to misspell it, it is not an error – just my idea of a “sic” joke.

No comments:

Post a Comment